“I want to be one of the nicest human beings that this earth has seen,” Sri Lankan Buddhist philanthropist Kushil Gunasekera told me in an interview early in 2020.
I’ve known Kushil for years, so I’m no longer surprised when he makes such bold pronouncements about his life goals. From the naming of his humanitarian organization as the Foundation of Goodness, to its organizational mission of promoting “unconditional compassion,” bold claims of moral excellence are fundamental to Kushil’s understanding of himself as a Buddhist humanitarian.
At first glance, Kushil’s ambition to be one of the nicest human beings may seem overzealous or even audacious. Yet, such a gloss would overlook Kushil’s passionate and earnest desire to cultivate and perfect his spiritual vocation of generosity.
Take for instance the time when, facing severe personal financial duress, Kushil used the last remaining credit on his credit card to pay the college fees for three children of a woman he hardly knew.
Facing financial bankruptcy, he had mortgaged his home for a personal loan. He was not deriving a salary from his organization, for he believed that relying on charitable contributions given to an organization primarily to serve poor beneficiaries was akin to deriving a “profit” from others’ misery. Taking financial benefit from humanitarian work, he felt, tainted the purity of his intention of unconditional compassion. At the outset of his charitable work, Kushil supported himself and his daughters from the proceeds of the sale of his lucrative sugar export business. Yet, over the years, those resources had run dry.
It was in the midst of this significant financial uncertainty that he received a phone call from a widow in Sri Lanka who needed urgent financial help. The woman’s husband had died suddenly, and she found herself struggling to pay for the final semester of her children’s education. Someone she knew who had heard of Kushil’s altruism had suggested she reach out to him for help.
“I told her, ‘Look, your problem is far worse than mine, I have one month to worry about my next payment and I can somehow sort that out, you go ahead and pay this now,’” he recalled. “At that moment, there was a fire that was burning within her and I was able to just put it out.”
Kushil reminded me of the phrase, “When you give more, you get more.” But he lives by another phrase: “The more you give, the more will be yours to give.”
“And you know, this has happened to me many times,” he said. “It’s a miracle. Every time I want to do something good, money has come from somewhere.”
Social change-making through humanitarian work is a field that for the most part is centered around a secular moral discourse; that is, the focus of the work is on ending social injustice, affirming equality, and advocating for fundamental human rights. Yet, amid the aid world’s landscape of good works, there are also individuals and groups who engage in these efforts out of motivations that are not reducible to liberal humanist reasoning and who undertake this type of work as a kind of spiritual vocation.
The life history of Kushil Gunasekera makes for a provocative point of departure to explore the idea of doing good as a spiritual vocation, demonstrating how certain individuals pursue externally directed acts of “doing good” as essential to their own spiritual self-making. In Kushil’s case, as a Buddhist, his social work is a personal spiritual vocation that involves cultivating a karmically moral subject around generosity. It is a meritorious vocation that he sees as spanning multiple samsāric lifetimes.
Many Western Buddhists have often struggled with the doctrines of karma, rebirth, and spiritual merit. In my more recent research among meditation-centered communities of converts to Buddhism, I have consistently noted a reluctance to take these aspects of the tradition seriously, with many of my interlocutors commenting on the incompatibility of such ideas with their own interpretation of Buddhism. Indeed, many Buddhist converts dismiss these more orthodox teachings as cultural accretions that have little apparent relevance to twenty-first-century lives.
Kushil’s story, I suggest, may encourage Western Buddhists turning to the tradition as a source of moral inspiration to explore how other Buddhist elsewhere have considered the complex ideas of karma, rebirth, and merit as foundational, rather than peripheral, to the ethics of compassion in Buddhism.
Nalika Gajaweera was a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.